The India that Rina Singh of Eka has crafted...

Even as I watched the block printer concentrate on the pink horizontal stripes on a swathe of white cotton sheet, I couldn’t help agree to what Rina Singh cut the air with. “There are plenty of people to do random stuff that can be learnt in a whisker. But why take away the strength of these people who thrive in this art form. Look at the precision, the dexterity. If we do not give them a chance to expand their art, who will?”

Rina at her Gurgaon workshop
While her passion to create easy, effortless clothes that is textile and craft oriented is what makes Rina Singh of Eka a beautiful label to reckon with, I realised that at the heart of it, simplicity is what drives the designer in her. Simplicity of her art, simplicity of the silhouettes and simplicity in the translation of an aesthetic that has found resonance in the world’s mindset.

Amidst the reams of handspun fabric stacked up in her workshop, the boxes of carved out blocks that have been enlivening the little drawings of flora and fauna on her feminine garments (her sprint summer collection in subtle hues of beige, white, green and blue and ready to be shipped to the several boutiques she sells from) and the quiet subtlety with which Rina makes it look all so easy, I located a painter at heart. A painter who is still fond of the pretty flowers around her, the warm haze of the winter sun and the belief that India’s riches are yet to be fully showcased before the world. The swatches, the drawings, the bric-a-brac in her tidy little office, everything reflected this quaint part of Rina. As quaint and pretty as the clothes she creates.

Skyrocketing into limelight ever since Eka was adjudged the winner in the womenswear category of the Woolmark regional round in 2016, Rina has never done anything that she did not identify with. In a country where the fashion is largely synonymous with trousseau and wedding couture, Eka’s clothes are subtle, simple yet so beautiful. If you look closely, every garment has been created with love and passion. The cuts, weaves, silhouettes and block prints are all too minute and intricate to not evince an awed reaction towards this house championing sustainable fashion.

Says the designer over our cups of steaming herbal tea, “Fashion is somewhat saturated all across the globe. So, now the new definition is to make it relevant across cultures and consumers. If global brands can make clothes that crosses boundaries, Indian clothes are capable of that as well. A label like ours has a unique design language because it brings to the fore what is intrinsic Indian, from its villages, but presents it in an elegant, easy way that can be enjoyed for its comfort. Indian fashion is not about only trousseau and wedding wear. There is an India of Satyajit Ray, of Gandhi, of Ruskin Bond. Of course, we are softer but the language of subtlety is gorgeous if denoted properly. Women across the world identify with that language.”

A graduate from the Wigan and Leigh College, UK, Rina works mostly with linen, mulmul and khadi and beautifies them with innovative block prints. Her Woolmark showcase was a sublime tribute to painter Amrita Shergill using jamdani and Merino wool in soft pastel shades. “The dresses, feminine in their look and feel, were Indian in soul but global in their appeal because my muse was an internationally loved and revered figure and the clothes took from the chapters of her life, spent in India and Paris. It was a collection that relied on interpretation and that was what enhanced the appeal,” Rina explains.

Some of Rina’s earliest memories growing up are of summer afternoons spent with her sister, twisting yarns together between their toes. Her maternal family lives in a big house in Pansar, a village in Uttar Pradesh, that used to be filled with craftspeople every summer. “Local weavers would stay with us for two weeks to set up a handloom and weave big dhurries on the patio, using yarns my nani and other elderly women in our family handspun on the charkha in their spare time. It was a magical time,” she recalls. 

Born in Saharanpur, U.P. into a Rajput agricultural family, from Kindergarten onwards, she was sent to boarding school near Mohali, Chandigarh. These summers in between spent with family surrounded by craft enriched her childhood. “I started to sew at an early age and had a knack for cutting and embroidery without any training. I was my families’ appointed fashion designer. My cousins sought advice from me – they would ask me to cut and sew their outfits for family functions.”

But Rina’s aesthetics were always divorced from the Rajput women she found herself surrounded by during her first marriage to a scion of a royal family. “While they wore chiffons and pearls, I loved my mulmuls and cottons in subdued tones. Even when I wore bright colours, they had an earthiness to them. I recognised my dissonance to the chained aesthetics.”

Other than embracing the responsibility of her son she also learnt resilience and acknowledged the fact that this was not a life for her. She left her marriage in 1997 and joined Wigan & Leigh College (WLC) in New Delhi on a scholarship. “In retrospect, the mentorship of Archana Shah, who initiated the crafts movement by integrating age old crafts with ready-to-wear fashion, and my internship in Bandhej in 1998 were important learning experiences,” she elaborates.

She met Sandeep in college and together they travelled the west coast of Gujarat – Bhujodi, Dhamadka, Mandavi and Anjar – meeting master craftsmen and, along the way, documenting their work. This was her first exposure to village craft communities from west India. In 2009, she married Sandeep, who is now her business partner and the logistic giant at Eka.

In 2010, her clothes got a little corner in the London cult shop Egg, when owner, the iconic Maureen Doherty, found them absolutely in tune with what her buyers would love. The quaint store is known for rare finds and avante-grade designers like Comme des Garçons, Sophie D’Hoore, apuntob- a.b, Casey Casey alongside the Egg label. The collection was a sell-out. That was the birth of Eka. “My clothes are not for a certain type of woman. They are for all of them, irrespective of age, body type and race. I’ve always wanted Eka to be cross-cultural and yes, the women who wear them come back saying they make her feel good about themselves. The stories emerge out of my travels and the people I interact with from a day-to-day basis. There is so much to get inspired in India but why present them in a jaded way. The world should see how effortlessly international the aesthetics can be with the use of handwoven textiles and traditional crafts.”

Even as I bid her adieu, I implore her to extend her art to the sari because I would love to don one. “Yes, I will. Soon.” And, going by how universal her creations are I know Rina will make the sari globally relevant too. Using soft khadi, mulmul and other handwoven fabric from the Indian hinterlands. And they will take a thoroughly exciting shape through an intricate block printed vocabulary. The sari will speak an easy global language. The triumphant language that Eka speaks all over the world today.

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